Each year, dermatologists and other people who care about skin health celebrate Skin Cancer Awareness Month in May, encouraging women, men, and children to spread knowledge of the damage ultraviolet radiation can cause and strategies for preventing skin cancer, as well as skin cancer treatment. In Dallas, Dr. Ellen Turner emphasizes prevention to her patients and the general Texas population, encouraging sun safety not just in the bright days people tend to celebrate from Memorial Day on, but throughout the whole summer and the rest of the year.
Skin cancer is not a strictly summertime problem. Obviously, the sun shines in every season, and even cloudy days allow ultraviolet radiation to pass through and impact the skin cells it reaches. And while cumulative exposure to sunlight is a major factor in its development, the disease also has a genetic component.
In other words, Skin Cancer Awareness Month in May should serve only as a springboard to a greater understanding of its prevention, diagnosis, and cures.
In cases where skin cancer does develop, early detection and a quick start to treatment are important strategies, as the earlier malignant cells are identified, the greater the chance of preserving a patient’s health—and, in many cases, appearance.
Dermatologists like Dr. Ellen Turner are trained to spot and identify problems in the skin, including cancer, but the process truly should begin at home.
While a dermatologist should notice an unusual lesion, this would typically happen during a skin check scheduled for once or twice a year. The patient, however, sees his or her skin every day, and so is best equipped to be aware of potential problems.
The best way to remember what to watch for is to use the first five letters of the alphabet as a way to list characteristics that can be concerning if present in a mole, potentially indicating the presence of skin cancer.
These characteristics are:
Asymmetry: A typical, healthy mole will be circular and round, with the left side matching the right side in shape and size. If someone were to somehow draw a line down the center and fold the mole in half, the two sides would essentially be the same. Of concern is when a mole is asymmetrical, meaning its shape is more amorphous—one side is not the mirror image of the other.
Border: The line where a mole meets the surrounding skin should be clearly defined, marking a definite transition. It may even be raised. Cancerous tissue has a tendency to create a more nebulous border, appearing in some places to spread out with no easily defined edges. A border that is notched or “scalloped” is also a warning sign that deserves a closer look from a dermatologist.
Color: Moles come in a variety of shades, but they typically fall in the brown range, or possibly black. The important thing to notice when examining a mole’s color is whether the lesion is uniformly one shade or whether there are a variety of colors present. Malignant cells can cause multiple colors to appear in one mole, which may feature different browns and grades of black, as well as lighter colors, such as red and pink. Cancerous tissue can even reveal white or blue.
Diameter: It may be a bit simplistic to say that the bigger the mole, the bigger the problem, but that’s not far off. Moles larger than 6 millimeters in diameter (that’s a quarter of an inch across) warrant scrutiny and a possible biopsy. There’s no need to get out a ruler and measure, though. Keep in mind that anything larger around than a standard pink eraser at the end of a No. 2 pencil should be pointed out to a dermatologist.
Evolving: A mole that looks fine one week may develop troubling signs the next. Or it may still appear to be fine—just larger or oval instead of circular. The point is: A lesion that changes over time is troubling. This factor is one of the reasons home skin checks are crucial. A patient can notice something a dermatologist can’t, simply because a dermatologist is not examining that patient’s skin every week—or even every month. Only someone familiar with their own body can notice what’s evolving from day to day.
Any mole showing any of the characteristics mentioned above should be looked at by a dermatologist, but people can generally schedule a skin check for any reason, including annual or biannual checkups to screen for skin cancer. Dallas dermatologist Dr. Ellen Turner provides more information on her website: dermofficedallas.com. Call (214) 373-7546 to learn more.